When a young man begins to think of making his fortune, his first notion usually is to go away from home to some very distant place. At present, the favorite spot is Colorado; awhile ago it was California; and old men remember when Buffalo was about as far west as the most enterprising person thought of venturing.
It is not always a foolish thing to go out into the world far beyond the parent nest, as the young birds do in midsummer. But I can tell you, boys, from actual inquiry, that a great number of the most important and famous business men of the United States struck down roots where they were first planted, and where no one supposed there was room or chance for any large thing to grow.
I will tell you a story of one of these men, as I heard it from his own lips some time ago, in a beautiful village where I lectured. He was an old man then; and a curious thing about him was that, although he was too deaf to hear one word of a public address, even of the loudest speaker, he not only attended church every Sunday, but was rarely absent when a lecture was delivered.
While I was performing on that occasion, I saw him sitting just in front of the platform, sleeping the sleep of the just till the last word was uttered. Upon being introduced to this old gentleman in his office, and learning that his business was to make hammers, I was at a loss for a subject of conversation, as it never occurred to me that there was anything to be said about hammers.
I have generally possessed a hammer, and frequently inflicted damage on my fingers therewith, but I had supposed that a hammer was simply a hammer, and that hammers were very much alike. At last I said,—
“And here you make hammers for mankind, Mr. Maydole?”
You may have noticed the name of David Maydole upon hammers. He is the man.
“Yes,” said he, “I have made hammers here for twenty-eight years.”
“Well, then,” said I, shouting in his best ear, ” by this time you ought to be able to make a pretty good hammer.”
“No, I can’t,” was his reply. “I can’t make a pretty good hammer. I make the best hammer that’s made.” That was strong language. I thought, at first, he meant it as a joke; but I soon found it was no joke at all.
He had made hammers the study of his lifetime, and, after many years of thoughtful and laborious experiment, he had actually produced an article, to which, with all his knowledge and experience, he could suggest no improvement. I was astonished to discover how many points there are about an instrument which I had always supposed a very simple thing. I was surprised to learn in how many ways a hammer can be bad. But, first, let me tell you how he came to think of hammers.
There he was, forty years ago, in a small village of the State of New York; no railroad yet, and even the Erie Canal many miles distant. He was the village blacksmith, his establishment consisting of himself and a boy to blow the bellows. He was a good deal troubled with his hammers. Sometimes the heads would fly off. If the metal was too soft, the hammer would spread out and wear away; if it was too hard, it would split. At that time blacksmiths made their own hammers, and he knew very little about mixing ores so as to produce the toughest iron. But he was particularly troubled with the hammer getting off the handle, a mishap which could be dangerous as well as inconvenient.
At this point of his narrative the old gentleman showed a number of old hammers, such as were in use before he began to improve the instrument; and it was plain that men had tried very hard before him to overcome this difficulty. One hammer had an iron rod running down through the handle with a nut screwed on at the end. Another was wholly composed of iron, the head and handle being all of one piece. There were various other devices, some of which were exceedingly clumsy and awkward.
At last, he hit upon an improvement which led to his being able to put a hammer upon a handle in such a way that it would stay there. He made what is called an adze-handled hammer, the head being attached to the handle after the manner of an adze. The improvement consists in merely making a longer hole for the handle to go into, by which device it has a much firmer hold of the head, and can easily be made extremely tight. With this improvement, if the handle is well seasoned and well wedged, there is no danger of the head flying off. He made some other changes, all of them merely for his own convenience, without a thought of going into the manufacture of hammers.
The neighborhood in which he lived would have scarcely required half a dozen new hammers per annum. But one day there came to the village six carpenters to work upon a new church, and one of these men, having left his hammer at home, came to David Maydole’s blacksmith’s shop to get one made.
“Make me as good a hammer,” said the carpenter, “as you know how.”
That was touching David upon a tender place.
“As good a one as I know how?” said he. “But perhaps you don’t want to pay for as good a one as I know how to make.”
“Yes, I do,” replied the man; “I want a good hammer.”
The blacksmith made him one of his best. It was probably the best hammer that had ever been made in the world, since it contained two or three important improvements never before combined in the instrument. The carpenter was delighted with it, and showed it, with a good deal of exultation, to his five companions; every man of whom came the next day to the shop and wanted one just like it. They did not understand all the blacksmith’s notions about tempering and mixing the metals, but they saw at a glance that the head and the handle were so united that there never was likely to be any divorce between them.
To a carpenter building a wooden house, the mere removal of that one defect was a boon beyond price; he could hammer away with confidence, and without fear of seeing the head of his hammer leap into the next field, unless stopped by a comrade’s head.
When all the six carpenters had been supplied with these improved hammers, the contractor came and ordered two more. He seemed to think, and, in fact, said as much, that the blacksmith ought to make his hammers a little better than those he had made for the men.
“I can’t make any better ones,” said honest David. “When I make a thing, I make it as well as I can, no matter who it’s for.”
Soon after, the store-keeper of the village, seeing what excellent hammers these were, gave the blacksmith a magnificent order for two dozen, which, in due time, were placed upon his counter for sale. At this time something happened to David Maydole which may fairly be called good luck; and you will generally notice events of the kind in the lives of meritorious men. “Fortune favors the brave,” is an old saying, and good luck in business is very apt to befall the man who could do very well without it.
It so happened that a New York dealer in tools, named Wood, whose store is still kept in Chatham Street, New York, happened to be in the village getting orders for tools. As soon as his eye fell upon those hammers, he saw their merits, and bought them all. He did more. He left a standing order for as many hammers of that kind as David Maydole could make. That was the beginning. The young blacksmith hired a man or two, then more men, and made more hammers, and kept on making hammers during the whole of his active life, employing at last a hundred and fifteen men.
During the first twenty years, he was frequently experimenting with a view to improve the hammer. He discovered just the best combination of ores to make his hammers hard enough, without being too hard. He gradually found out precisely the best form of every part. There is not a turn or curve about either the handle or the head which has not been patiently considered, and reconsidered, and considered again, until no further improvement seemed possible. Every handle is seasoned three years, or until there is no shrink left in it.
Perhaps the most important discovery which he made was that a perfect tool cannot be made by machinery. Naturally, his first thought, when he found his business increasing, was to apply machinery to the manufacture, and for some years several parts of the process were thus performed. Gradually, his machines were discarded, and for many years before his retirement, every portion of the work was done by hand. Each hammer is hammered out from a piece of iron, and is tempered over a slow charcoal fire, under the inspection of an experienced man. He looks as though he were cooking his hammers on a charcoal furnace, and he watches them until the process is complete, as a cook watches mutton chops.
I heard some curious things about the management of this business. The founder never did anything to “push” it. He never advertised. He never reduced the price of his hammers because other manufacturers were doing so. His only care, he said, had been to make a perfect hammer, to make just as many of them as people wanted, and no more, and to sell them at a fair price. If people did not want his hammers, he did not want to make them. If they did not want to pay what they were worth, they were welcome to buy cheaper ones of some one else.
For his own part, his wants were few, and he was ready at any time to go back to his blacksmith’s shop. The old gentleman concluded his interesting narration by making me a present of one of his hammers, which I now cherish among my treasures. If it had been a picture, I should have had it framed and hung up over my desk, a perpetual admonition to me to do my work well; not too fast; not too much of it; not with any showy false polish; not letting anything go till I had done all I could to make it what it should be.
In telling this little story, I have told thousands of stories. Take the word hammer out of it, and put glue in its place, and you have the history of Peter Cooper. By putting in other words, you can make the true history of every great business in the world which has lasted thirty years. The true “protective system,” of which we hear so much, is to make the best article; and he who does this need not buy a ticket for Colorado.
The Youth’s Companion – Thursday July 31, 1879
– Jeff Burks